UPDATE DECEMBER 20: Despite the horrific attack on the Christmas market in Berlin, the Marché de Noël de Strasbourg will remain open. For the past two years the market has been placed under high security, with the entire historical center closed to regular traffic and police checkpoints at every possible entry monitoring every vehicle and pedestrian who enters. Security will likely be even higher now, so please don't let the terrorists keep you from experiencing one of France's most beautiful events.
If you want to experience a real French Christmas market, don't miss Strasbourg’s famous Marché de Noël. Europe’s oldest Christmas market was founded in Strasbourg in 1570. Four and a half centuries later it continues to celebrate Alsatian holiday traditions with over 300 chalets in a dozen locations throughout the picturesque town of cobblestone pedestrian streets and half-timbered buildings with decorated facades and twinkling lights. I’ve visited several times and have taken friends and family, and the Strasbourg Marché de Noël never fails to impress. Disneyland wished it looked this cute!
Unlike the Parisian markets, the focus here is on the Alsace holiday traditions, so instead of tacky Santa Clause hats and electronic toys, you get a more down-to-earth feel, with a focus on hand-made ornaments, local foods and drinks, and musical celebrations in the churches and public squares.
Planning a Trip to the Strasbourg Marché de Noël
If you’re in Paris in December it’s worth the effort to make the day trip to Strasbourg by train. Even if it’s too late for you to go this Christmas, it’s never too early to plan for next year. The tips below will help you organize a day trip, but if you have the time, I heartily recommend an overnight trip to fully enjoy the sights and tastes of the town.
The Marché de Noël takes places the last weekend in November through Christmas Eve (in 2016 the dates are November 25-December 31). There is no entrance fee; the event takes place throughout the town. You can download this free English guide “Strasbourg: Capital of Christmas” from the Strasbourg Tourism Office website. It has detailed info to all of the markets, events and activities around the Marché de Nöel so you can plan the best day to go and what you want to see during your short visit. If you can, try to avoid the weekends, when the markets and restaurants are most crowded.
The TGV from the Paris Gare de L’Est station (in the 10th arrondissement) takes two hours and 20 minutes to get to Strasbourg. The earliest ones leave at 6:25am, but I recommend the 6:55am or 7:25am trains which arrive at 9:15am and 9:45am, ideal for a full day. Note: no cafés are open at or around the Gare de L’Est station before 6:30am, so don’t get there too early! The latest trains back to Paris leave Strasbourg at 8:16pmand 8:46pm and arrive at 10:35pm and 11:05pm. Get your SNCF tickets two months in advance (it’s not possible to reserve earlier) for the best deals from €25 each way; last-minute tickets tend to be €75-€95 each way. I use Trainline to get my tickets because they’re easier to use, but either one works. Note: I recommend getting the “print your tickets at home” option if you have a printer; if you need to pick them up at the station be SURE you pack the same credit card you used to make the payment or you won’t be able to retrieve your tickets.
What to Bring
Have a basic map printed out (you’ll get a better one at the Tourism Office on arrival), unless your smartphone has good maps like this interactive Strasbourg map (don’t forget your phone charger for the train), camera with charged batteries, money and ID or passport (in case they check on the train), a water bottle (you can get snacks and drinks on the train, but they’re pricey), and for the cold bring those cool Toe Warmers to put in your shoes, an extra scarf, rain jacket or parka, hat, warm gloves (required for skating), and a recycle bag for shopping. A good lightweight backpack, and smaller wallet or purse for money and tickets that you keep on you (pickpockets are always in large crowds). Err on the side of packing light; you can always buy stuff in Strasbourg if you need it, there tons of shops, pharmacies, etc. Note: there is free WIFI in five of the markets in Strasbourg (ask at the tourism office) as well as many cafés.
Getting Around Strasbourg
Strasbourg is very easy to get around on foot, tram or bike from the TGV train station. You could walk across the entire center of town (which looks like an island because the L’Ill River splits in two and surrounds it) in about 45 minutes if you’re slow. If you’ve got good shoes you may be tempted to walk everywhere, but you can save time and shoe leather taking the tram at least into the center. The Cathedral in the center can be seen from almost everywhere in Strasbourg (20 minutes on foot from the station); the tourism office is right next to it. The main pedestrian street Grand’Rue is a nice walk from the station with a lot of unique shops and cafés, while the Rue du Vieux Marché and Rue du 22 Novembre tend to be chain stores (including the high-end luxury brands you see in Paris).
The Strasbourg tram network is one of the best in France, with six lines in the city center. Lines A,C, and D are at the Gare station; All three go to the Homme de Fer station in the center of town, and A or D both go to Langstrosse Grand’Rue closest to the Cathedral (Broglie is another close station to the Cathedral but is closed during the Marché de Noël for security reasons). The tram entrance just outside the train station is actually underground like a metro (it then comes out and runs along the streets), just ask someone if you don’t see it. For tickets, you will likely only need to make two trips, so considering how many people you have, you can buy individual ones for €1.70 each, a round-trip ticket for €3.30, or a pack of ten that can be shared for €14. There is also an unlimited 24-hour pass for one person for €4.30, or €6.80 for 2-3 people (the best deal if there are three of you). The trams run every few minutes and are easy to use.
Like Paris, Strasbourg has a city bike-share system, Vélhop. Click on “Occasional Hires” on the website if you’d like to use it for the day. The rate is just €5 (you’ll need a credit card, which will be charged €150 if you don’t return the bike). The nearest station is right outside the train station (to the right), and throughout the town, and the actual boutique (if you need a human to help you) is on the lower level of the train station, open weekdays at 8am, Saturdays at 9:30am, closed Sunday. Don’t forget where you park yours, they all look alike. You’ll notice right away that there are a LOT of cyclists in Strasbourg, so watch out for them as much as watching out for the tram and pedestrians.
Early Arrival in Strasbourg
None of the shops or markets are open before 10am, so take advantage of your early arrival to do these three things (in any order): get maps and info at the tourism office, eat breakfast, visit the Cathedral.
First, get informed. There is a small tourism information desk at the train station where you can pick up the free printed copy of the guide “Strasbourg: Capital of Christmas” (make sure you get the English one) as well as a free basic map of the markets and holiday event locations. The main Strasbourg Tourism Office is at the Place de la Cathédral (on your left as you’re facing the cathedral entrance), open daily 9am-7pm. I also recommend getting an actual city map if you don’t have a smartphone with working GPS so you can easily find your way around the smaller streets and tram stations. The Tourism Office is also where you can reserve spots for guided tours of the city in English; ask about the schedule when you arrive since it changes regularly.
There will be plenty to eat at the Marché de Noël stands, so no need for a huge breakfast. I always use breakfast as a chance to read over the guide I picked up at the tourism office and plan out my itinerary with the map (easier to do on a printed one that you can read with gloves on). Many cafés are open early for breakfast. My favorite place is Christian (10 rue Mercière, right by the Cathedral), a bakery with a cozy tearoom upstairs that gets packed around 11am. I get a traditional Kougelhopf (a type of brioche with almonds on it) and a gourmet tea or hot chocolate. Two others I like are the Salon du Thé Grand’Rue (80 Grand’Rue) and Bistro & Chocolat (8 rue de Râpe), around the back of the Cathedral, but not open unti1 11am weekdays and 10am weekends, so better for lunch or an afternoon hot chocolate and pastry.
Cathédral Notre Dame de Strasbourg
There are many churches in Strasbourg, but you can’t miss the towering Cathédral Notre Dame de Strasbourg completed in the 15th century (with a Romanesque crypt dating back to the 11th century). It is open Monday-Saturday 9:30am-11:15am and 2-6pm, and Sunday 9am-7pm (closed to sightseeing during mass). Note: the hours have changed recently, the English version of website is wrong. Aside from the church itself, which is free to visit, you can also climb up the 332 steps to the rooftop viewing platform, which has great views over Strasbourg and all the way to the Black Forest in Germany on a clear day. In winter it’s open from 10am-6pm (last entry 5:30pm), fee €5. The entrance is around the south exterior of the cathedral (on the right as you face front entrance). There is also a big deal made of the Renaissance Astronomical Clock, l’Horloge Astronomique, which, for €2, you can see moving like a very elaborate cuckoo clock. I personally thought it was a lot of waiting around for a short show, so check it out here first and make your own decision.
The Christmas Markets & Sights
There are eleven markets in different squares throughout central Strasbourg, including just outside the train station, outside the Cathedral, on Place Broglie, on Place Kléber (with the largest real Christmas Tree in France grown specifically for the market), at Place Corbeau by the Alsatian Museum, at Place Gutenberg where there’s a guest visitor market each year (Portugal for 2016), in Petite France overlooking the River L’Ill, at Place d’Austerlitz specializing in only foods and drinks, outside the Temple Neuf Church, and the furthest at Cité de la Musique et de la Danse next to the ice skating rink. Each market supposedly has its specialty, but they basically all have ornaments, gifts, pottery, linens, foods and plenty of mulled wine, and of course, storks. You won’t see actual storks in the winter, but there are plenty of them in Strasbourg in the summer, so it’s now their official bird mascot. You’ll see plenty of ornaments and fuzzy hats. They are all worth a visit, but I particularly like the one at Petite France because it’s absurdly cute. The “Sharing” or Solidarité Village at the Place Kléber is where you’ll find all of the local non-profits and charities like UNICEF and the Lions Club selling souvenirs or food and drink for a good cause. They are all open 10am until 8pm (Friday and Saturday until 9pm).
Getting sick of cutesy Christmas Village Land? For 2016 there is also an “Off” de Noël highlighting Strasbourg’s street art scene, young local designers, a fair trade food and artisan market, and live music events. The HQ of the “Off” is around the Quartier Gare train station district (home to much of the street art). Yes, Strasbourg also has a bit of an edge to it! Pick up a map and schedule of events at the cool Graffalgar Hotel (just outside the train station), one of the official hosts (they also have a great little café where you can get a hot drink and charge your phone). See their Facebook page for the full schedule. Another address in the “Off” Noël itinerary is La PopArtiserie, an alternative art gallery around a cozy cobblestone courtyard with a bar and live concerts in the evenings.
La Petite France
This district in the southwestern corner of the city is full of picturesque half-timbered houses dating back to the Renaissance overlooking a series of canals. I usually walk straight here from the train station, cutting across the square in front of the colorful Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMCS) to cross the River Ill on the Barrage Vauban, a 17th century dam with a free rooftop terrace that has excellent views over La Petite France. You’ll see the Cathedral in the distance, but in direct sight are the four stone towers of the former Ponts Couverts, the bridges that were once covered in the 15th century. The neighborhood has several shops, cafés and two markets.
Musée Historique de la Ville de Strasbourg
This museum covers the fascinating history of the city of Strasbourg from its Roman beginnings, its status as a Free Royal City under the French kings, what happened when France ceded the entire region to the Germans after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and the city’s Nazi occupation in World War II. You’ll find armor and uniforms, history maps and relief scale models of the city. Open 10am-6pm, closed Monday. Entrance €6.50. http://www.musees.strasbourg.eu/b
Just across the river near the Place Corbeau is the museum of the Alsatian people and their traditions, housed in one of the city’s oldest half-timbered homes faithfully decorated to show what the interiors would have looked like. It’s a great introduction to the spirit of the locals, who consider themselves Alsatian, not German nor French, and what their daily lives were like. If you have to choose one museum to visit, make it this one. Open 10am-6pm, closed Tuesday. Entrance €6.50. http://www.musees.strasbourg.eu/
Food & Drink at the Markets
You can seriously eat your way across the Marché de Noël: bretzels (soft pretzels), Kougelhopf brioches big and small, Bredeles (star-shaped spice bread cookies), Pain d’Epice (spice bread or ginger bread, many variations on flavor), every kind of pastry, crêpes, tartes flambés, also called flammekeuche (wood fired pizzas made traditionally with crème fraiche, bacon and onions, but also can have Gruyère cheese or mushrooms), knacks (sausages), choucroute (sauerkraut), and vin chaud (mulled wine) or if you’re not into hot wine there’s also hot spiced orange, apple or lemon juice. For drinks you need to pay an extra €1 consigne for the decorated plastic cup, which you get back when you return the cup (but if you keep it you have a nice souvenir).
You may get sick of standing when you eat, or just need to seriously thaw out. Central Strasbourg has a ton of restaurants, cafés and bistros, some obviously better than others. For very traditional, old-fashioned Alsatian cuisine I usually go to Zuem Strissel, the oldest winstub in Strasbourg dating back to the 14th century. Lots of dark wood paneling, stained glass windows, and all the local specialties including choucroute, flammekeuche and hearty meat dishes with German-sounding names you’ll need an Alsatian dictionary to decipher. Very similar and also on two floors is Le Gruber, a very cozy Alsatian restaurant with a lot of décor to distract you from the impossible quantities of food you’re consuming. I prefer the upstairs in both restaurants to get away from the winter drafts. Of course, some people are looking for something a bit more modern, where the locals actually eat. I really liked Le Troquet des Kneckes on the Grand’Rue, a casual and cozy place popular with the university students that has surprisingly good food (I had their pumpkin soup and a bretzel for a hot snack), but is more like a bar after hours. Locals in the know book ahead for a table for a nice lunch or dinner at Vince Stub, which is always packed despite being hidden from the tourist crowds on a little side street. They serve traditional French market cuisine in a cozy setting near Petite France. If you’re visiting on the weekends you may want to book ahead no matter where you eat, just in case, as it can get very crowded.
More affordable than Paris, a night in Strasbourg is highly recommended if you have the time. It’s best to stay in the city center (inside or near the River Ill), preferably close to the train station or a tram stop so you don’t have to go far with your bags. There are many different hotels for all budgets, the nicest are usually booked all of December two months in advance. Le Bouclier d’Or is a luxury hotel and spa on the edge of La Petite France, with gorgeous rooms showing the historic building’s beams. Hotel Cour du Corbeau is a contemporary 4-star hotel within a historic building, close to the tram and easy walk to all of the sights. The Marché Place du Corbeau is just outside. Hotel Suisse is an adorable little 2-star hotel overlooking the Cathedral, with a few tables on the sidewalk (for the summer) and a lovely tearoom next door. Graffalgar Hotel as mentioned above in the “Off” Noël section, is a budget hotel with edgy style, rooms decorated by graffiti artists, a great café, and easy to find right by the train station. Great for solo travelers. Hotel Patricia is for those on a severe budget. This is a minimalist hotel that resembles the dorm room I had in college, but one step up from a youth hostel (you don’t have to share a room, but the cheapest ones have shared bathrooms in the hall). Great location on a quiet street near the Cathedral and La Petite France.